In a time of uncertainty, Singapore Biennale’s theme for 2019 is resoundingly assuring. For its sixth edition, the biennial contemporary art affair is standing by the phrase ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’, coined by its current artistic director Patrick Flores.
It is a straight-forward call-to-action for boldness and optimism, an unexpected contrast to the Biennale’s themes in previous years. But its simplicity is little indication of the ambitious task that lays ahead for Flores.
“[The theme] refers to the ethical imperative for both artists and audiences to make choices and take the steps to think through what the world is facing right now and decide on how it can be different,” Flores says.
As the Biennale’s first artistic director not from Singapore Arts Museum (the Biennale’s organiser), Flores has his work cut out for him. Together with his curatorial team of six other art professionals, Flores is involved in selecting participating artists from 36 countries and territories, curating their works and taking Singapore’s biggest cultural event island-wide the right way.
When it opens on 22 November 2019, visitors can expect a series of performances, films and installations introduced to 11 venues across the city in several phases. The Singapore Biennale team will also introduce the Coordinates Projects, an initiative of exhibitions, community programmes and tours in different locales.
As we count down the days to the Singapore Biennale, we speak to Flores on the role of art in addressing the problems of today and how he’s keeping the art festival relevant and relatable for all audiences.
“Every step in the right direction” is a pretty bold and ambitious statement for the Biennale. What does it mean for the format and outlook for this year’s Biennale?
Art is fundamentally a transformation of material into something else – this is the transformative energy that can be internalised by both artist and audience. The Singapore Biennale 2019 puts its faith squarely in the potential of the artist to rework the world and invites the audience to be open to such a work and to a world that is made different through it.
On the Festival-Seminar Format I didn’t want to further this false binary between thoughtfulness and delight, as if when we enjoy we are mindless, or when we are too intellectually keen, we spoil the fun. I try to bring the two together as modes of understanding and cherishing the world.
Another way to look at this edition of the Biennale, Every Step in the Right Direction, is as an invitation – to the artist to make a gesture, and to the public to participate. With the dispersion of artworks across Singapore, I hope that tourists and Singaporeans alike will take the opportunity to explore or renew their experience with the city.
How are you differentiating this year’s Biennale from the 2016 edition? What are some of the challenges you and your curatorial encountered so far?
My background as an art historian informs my attention to objects and my sense of the contemporary. So this contemporary platform will reference and feature works from the modern era, and on the transition from one to the other.
The members of the millennial curatorium bring their experience/intelligence/instincts honed by their own time and milieu. They are interested in the connectivity to people, places, events. They express sympathy with and curiosity for things that are hard to grasp or have not been tried before. There is a productive brazenness or temerity there. At the same time, there is openness, there is generosity. We should enhance these sensibilities.
Space, for example, is a challenge. We are not confined to one site. We spread out across ten or so sites. It’s hard because of the variety of spaces. But the dispersion becomes part of the Biennale form in conversation with the conceptual impulse. As a result, I hope that in this Biennale, Singaporeans and tourists alike will form a fresh view of the city by walking, getting lost, and finding places.
This year’s Biennale comes at a time of unrest. What are some poignant topics will we see addressed here?
The title was generated in response to the pressing realities of the world today and the urgent need for art as a transformative vehicle to insist on hope and the ability of both artist and public to create the conditions of change. The crisis dwells in the ecology and every day, from nature in peril to human life threatened by violence, from intense migration to intense assertion of entitlements. These are the predicaments of the world. Contemporary art holds out prospects.
This year’s Biennale is a part of Singapore’s Bicentennial. As of now, the Bicentennial angle is, quite frankly, done to death. What is the Biennale planning to do differently?
The Singapore Biennale has been running since 2006, with 2019 as its sixth edition. It stands apart from the Singapore Bicentennial, though there are definitely certain aspects that resonate with it, and are explored by some of the Biennale artists in their works. So in that sense, I didn’t start with the premise of the Bicentennial, although I initiate a subtle conversation with its desires. Instead, my methodology started with an ethical impulse and avoided a prescriptive theme – I’m trying to move away from this curatorial tendency of thematisation that I believe limits the imagination of everyone involved.
The Singapore Biennale isn’t just about Singaporean artists, but also regional and international ones. What other art scenes do you see developing around the Southeast region?
Every art world in the region offers interest, depending on who appreciates its promise, and through what lens. I think it might be interesting to move away from capital cities and invest time trying to understand other places like Aceh in Indonesia or Battambang in Cambodia. Southeast Asia may also be defined in terms of migration elsewhere. So we should be looking into a larger region beyond what has been demarcated for us by governments. Filipino artists in Los Angeles or Singaporean artists in London, for instance, are part of this mutating matrix.
The Singapore Biennale will run from 22 November 2019 to 22 March 2020.